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Chinese Opera at the State Theatre: The Immortals of Pong-lai by Ming Hwa Yuan

Anton Krueger

These once-off events at the State Theatre which appear out of the blue are wonderful. The last time I saw something like this was when we watched a team of Danish gymnasts perform in the Opera Theatre. There was also a once-off of Wole Soyinka's King Baabu. And last Saturday we watched a mesmerising Chinese opera by the Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwanese Opera Company. It was a full Chinese opera with fantastical costumes, elegant backdrops and astonishing make-up.

The story revolves around a brash young prince called Li Shuan who challenges Lord Lou, the founder of Daoism, to a kung fu exhibition. But after he beats him, Pong-Lai turns up his nose at the prize, which is to live with seven other immortals on the Island of Ponglai. This arrogance eventually sees him humiliated.

The story is new, but it retells a traditional story which every Chinese schoolchild knows, about the myth of the eight immortals. It's an episodic story with little character development. The narrative works by addition rather than elaboration. It's a myth, a fable, and in this sense the meaning of the opera is superficial, in that a clear moral message manipulates the workings of character and interaction.

What was evident in abundance was spectacle. We saw displays of acrobatics by fabulous animals and magic tricks done by characters in masks with highly exaggerated gestures. As in Greek myths, there's constant infighting and squabbling amongst the gods, the immortals and people. The story line provides many opportunities for terrific battles between emperors, masters, beggars, gods, monsters and spirits. After a series of these, Li Shuan suggests to Lord Lou that they leave their bodies behind and battle with their spirits high above in the air. But when they leave their bodies behind, the goddess of Yue (who is upset with Li Shuan for harbouring a monster who offended her) takes her revenge on Li Shuan's defenceless body, cutting off his head and accidentally killing a merry beggar in the process. When Li Shuan's spirit returns to his fragmented body, his only option is to be reincarnated into the body of the beggar if he wants to live at all. And in this way a prophecy spoken at the start of the story is fulfilled and Li Shuan "cripples his way to the island of Pong Lai". (I enjoyed the mistranslations in the subtitles, which sometimes conveyed a more specifically Chinese interpretation than a grammatically correct translation might have.)

My friend Barry pointed out that the battle sequences were "very benign", and it's true that they were re-enacted in a highly formal, completely artificial style. No attempt is made at realism and the sequences tend to involve very gentle sweeps with long swords in the general direction of an opponent who is then liable to respond with a series of back-flips. (When I watched a Chinese opera a few years ago in Beijing they made much more of these scenes, with more spectacular actions and acrobatics; but perhaps they toned down the displays of violence in this version because of their sponsorship by a Buddhist contingent, I don't know.)

As with the stylistics of movements, the simplicity of the staging and set comes from centuries of paring down and reducing elements to their simplest forms, down to their most subtle components. One realises how the early kung fu movies are a mixture of this stylisation and attempts at European realism, which doesn't always quite work out. Here, although the opera was set in a mythical time, there were odd, anachronistic references to, for example, motorbikes and blue movies. Although the music was original, it drew on stock tunes (for example, the translation would announced that this was a "Han melody", or the "beggar's tune"). Each character also had a personal signature tune, which was almost like a Wagnerian motif.

Being at the opera on Saturday was really like being in China for a night. The place was packed, as the Chinese communities of Cyreldene, Benoni, Pretoria and Boksburg all turned up to support this fine example of their ancient civilisation, one which Bruce Chatwin referred to as "the oldest and most subtle civilisation in the world". Quite possibly the Taiwanese have managed to maintain the charm and grandeur of their civilisation a great deal better than the masses on the mainland.

This particular event formed part of the 40th-year celebrations for the Fo Guang Shan order, who have recently completed their exquisite temple - modelled on Beijing's Forbidden City - at Bronkhorstpruit. In an elaborate ceremony after the show, the proceeds were donated to the widows and orphans fund of the SAPS, and to an orphanage they run in Malawi.

For more info on the temple and its festivals, museums and meditation retreats go to

LitNet: 23 May 2006

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